Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Sunday 11 February 2024

Solo Stakes

You wake. You are in a hospital bed. There is an IV in your arm and you are pretty sure you have been shot from the injury in your side. From the voices and the view from the window, you think you are in Hungary. You have no idea how you got here… Do you have amnesia? You can recall the sharp taste of blood, running through some woods, something swooping down at you and shrieking… Did you bite your tongue? Were you chased? And if so, by what, a bird? This is the set-up for ‘Never say Dead’, the first of three scenarios, which together form the basis of a mini-campaign for Night’s Black Agents: Solo Ops. Published by Pelgrane Press, this a campaign framework for Night’s Black Agents: the Vampire Spy Thriller RPG, the roleplaying game in which the Player Characters are ex-secret agents who have learned that their former employers are controlled by vampires and decide to take down the vampiric conspiracy before the vampires take them. Night’s Black Agents offers a range of tools which the Game Master, or Director, can design the vampire conspiracy and the vampire threat, from psychic alien leeches to the traditional children of Transylvania, and set the tone and style of the espionage, from the high octane of the James Bond franchise to the dry and mundane grittiness of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. What Night’s Black Agents: Solo Ops does is combine Night’s Black Agents with the GUMSHOE One-2-One System first seen in Cthulhu Confidential. This enables the Director to run and the player to experience the intensity and intrigue of an action-horror film.

Night’s Black Agents: Solo Ops is more than just the set-up for a trilogy of scenarios. It provides the rules for the GUMSHOE One-2-One System—adjusted to fit the setting of Night’s Black Agents—and the means for the Director to create her own. Just like Night’s Black Agents and the GUMSHOE System, an Agent in Night’s Black Agents: Solo Ops and the GUMSHOE One-2-One System has two types of Abilities—Investigative Abilities and General Abilities. Investigative Abilities, such as Cryptography and Negotiation, are used to gain information. If the Investigator has the Investigative Ability, he receives the information or the clue. General Abilities, like Driving and Sense Trouble, are more traditional in that their use requires dice to be rolled and a test passed to determine success or failure. Night’s Black Agents: Solo Ops then deviates from this in order to account for the fact that there is only the one Investigator rather than many as in Night’s Black Agents. With multiple players, all of the Investigative Abilities would be accounted across the Investigators. Not so in Night’s Black Agents: Solo Ops. So, when an Agent lacks an Investigative Ability, he can instead turn to an NPC or source for help as a Contact. A Contact can be written into a scenario, but an Agent can convert an NPC into a Contact or a player can create one during play. In Night’s Black Agents, Investigative Abilities have pools of points which can be spent to gain extra clues about a situation, but in v, the Agent has Pushes, which the player can spend to gain the extra information or a benefit. This applies to any Investigative Ability and could be used to gain the Agent extra information using the Interrogation Investigative Ability, gain greater insight into a suspect using the Detect Bullshit Investigative Ability, and so on. An Agent begins a scenario with three Pushes and can earn more through play.

In Night’s Black Agents, General Abilities also have pools of points, which are then expended to modify dice rolls for tests. In Night’s Black Agents: Solo Ops, General Abilities have two six-sided dice, which are also rolled on Tests. Tests are rolled when there is the possibility of failure in a situation, such as getting past a doorman to break into a suspect’s office or fleeing from the inhuman monster found in said suspect’s office, and are divided into two types. In either case, the player rolls the dice one at a time and totals their values. This is important because some Tests can be overcome with the roll of the one die rather than two dice. The Challenge is the more complex and more interesting of the two.

A Challenge gives three results—‘Advance’, ‘Hold’, and ‘Setback’. The ‘Advance’ is the equivalent of ‘Yes, and…’ and indicates a successful attempt with an extra benefit. This benefit is called an Edge and can prove useful later in the investigation. In addition, if the Challenge was overcome with the roll of a single die, then the Investigator is rewarded with an additional Push. The ‘Setback’ is the equivalent of ‘No, and…’ and indicates a failed attempt with an added Problem that will hamper the investigation. The ‘Hold’ lies somewhere in between with the Investigator no better or worse off, and also without an Edge or a Problem. It is also possible for the Investigator to suffer an Extra Problem in order to gain an additional die to roll in the hope of gaining an ‘Advance’. A player can gain extra dice for a Challenge by accepting an Extra Problem or having his Agent perform a Stunt, which uses dice from another General Ability. This requires a little explanation of how it works and it depletes the use of that General Ability until the Agent effectively rests. Effectively, what a Challenge does is codify a set of narrative outcomes that can help or hinder an Agent, whilst still pushing the narrative of the scenario forward.

In comparison, a Quick Test requires a simple roll to gain an ‘Advance’ result. The structure of Night’s Black Agents: Solo Ops and its scenarios presents Challenges in clear test boxes, and both Edges and Problems as essentially cards that are given to the player to add to his Agent. Fights, chases, infiltrating a base, and so on, are all handled as Challenges. Night’s Black Agents: Solo Ops is action-orientated, so there is the possibility of an Agent getting killed. The consequences differ greatly between Night’s Black Agents and Night’s Black Agents: Solo Ops. In Night’s Black Agents, the death of an Agent can easily be replaced whereas in Night’s Black Agents: Solo Ops, the death means the end of the investigation and the scenario, so whilst fights are dangerous, they are not lethal—and that applies to the NPCs or vampires as much as the Agent. The Agent can suffer debilitating injury or loss, but can recover through the ‘Take Time to Recover’ action. Similarly, the antagonist, whether mundane or monstrous, is not killed, but suffers a loss that will benefit the Agent in some way, represented by an Edge. However, this only applies in the early scenes of a scenario, and as a scenario progresses, fights and confrontations become increasingly deadly.

An Agent also has Mastery Edges which are attached to specific General Abilities. These reflect both the Agent’s intensive training and experience, but also how capable the Agent is in terms of the cinematic genre of Night’s Black Agents: Solo Ops. They typically provide a one-time effect which ignores the rules in a particular situation or grant a bonus to the dice rolls on a Challenge. For example, ‘The Nick of Time’ is a Preparedness Edge that enables an Agent to have done something retroactively that helps him in his current situation, such as planting a bomb, bribing a custom official, reconnoitring an avenue of escape, and so forth, whereas ‘Intuition’ for the Sense Trouble General Ability grants an extra die on a Challenge. An Agent begins play with three Edges and discards them after use.

As in action films, there are consequences to an Agent’s activities. These are tracked by three cumulative factors. Heat is gained for public fights or explosions, people getting hurt, and committing criminal acts, and as it rises, it can trigger Problems that affect an Agent’s progress or actual Challenges. Injury represents physical impairment, whilst Shadow determines how aware the supernatural threat is of the Agent. It is gained by encountering supernatural entities, attracting their attention, thwarting their conspiracies, and recalling previous encounters with vampires. The latter is important for the Agent for the three scenarios in Night’s Black Agents: Solo Ops, since she begins play suffering from amnesia. Shadow will also Problems to an Agent’s progress, but can be lost by killing vampires or fleeing to another city, or suppressed by using garlic or crossing running water. Both Heat and Shadow can also trigger another effect, and that is Blowback. This can be a repercussion, retaliation, or unintended consequences of an Agent’s actions and is typically framed as a Blowback scene that the Director inserts into the narrative.

In Night’s Black Agents, an Agent has the Stability General Ability, which is used to measure an Agent’s ability to withstand the supernatural abilities of the vampires he will face, as well as those of the other monsters that he might encounter—demons, ghosts, and ghouls, as well as Renfields. In Night’s Black Agents: Solo Ops, the Agent instead has the Cool General Ability. This is used to overcome stressful situations and resist the compulsions that a vampire might place upon an Agent. Mechanically, it will use Challenges in most situations and poor results will trigger problems for the Agent. Many of the powers and effects that a vampire can have on an Agent are modelled through Problems.

For the player, Night’s Black Agents: Solo Ops presents a good explanation of how an Agent is presented, how the rules work, and on how to play. This includes details on tradecraft and notably, the ‘Bucharest Rules’. These are akin to the ‘Moscow Rules’ that guided Cold War operations in Eastern European and they are similar, but given a suitably vampiric twist for Night’s Black Agents: Solo Ops. They emphasise that although the situation is dangerous and that the Agent can die, he can win, that he needs to be proactive, he should follow the money and use HUMINT, build networks of contacts and allies, and always know where the exit is. This is supported by several factors. First, that the play is more about interpreting the clues found rather than the finding of them (and that if unsure of where to go next, looking for more clues is always a good choice), and second, that the Player Character, the Agent, is the hero of the story. This is contrasted by the fact that Night’s Black Agents: Solo Ops literally pulls the safety net out from under the player. No longer can he rely upon his fellow players and their Agents for advice or help. Barring contacts and allies within the game, the player and his Agent is on his own. That is a scary situation for the player—in addition to his Agent facing vampires—and the player is being asked to be proactive from the start of a scenario to the end. In other words, he is always in the spotlight.

For the Director, Night’s Black Agents: Solo Ops explains how the rules work and gives advice on how to run the game. This applies not just to the three scenarios in Night’s Black Agents: Solo Ops, but also in general as the advice includes a guide to creating and designing vampires, conspiracies, scenes, Challenges, Problems, and more for her own scenarios. This includes a full range of sample Challenges. Night’s Black Agents: Solo Ops still employs the ‘Conspyramid’, the pyramid structure used to map out the vampire conspiracy, with the vampire leaders of the conspiracy sitting atop both the structure and the organisation and the base containing the outer edges of the conspiracy. However, here it is much narrower, reflecting the tighter focus upon the single Agent and his investigation in Night’s Black Agents: Solo Ops. The advice throughout the section for the Director is fulsome.

Half of Night’s Black Agents: Solo Ops is dedicated to its three scenarios. The protagonist for these is Leyla Khan, an ex-MI6 officer who has been a thrall of the vampires of the vampires for several years at the start of the first scenario. Not only will she have to confront her former masters, but she will also have to deal with the consequences of her own half-remembered past and its own monstrous activities. The antagonists are vampires, Linea Dracula, descended from Vlad Tepes and surprisingly ‘vanilla’ in terms of their design and abilities. This, though, works for an action-horror like that of the three scenarios in Night’s Black Agents: Solo Ops because it does not complicate the story or the antagonists. Plus, there is plenty of scope for the Director to modify them if she so chooses. That said, the Director could easily ignore the vampire aspect of Night’s Black Agents: Solo Ops and create scenarios focusing on more traditional espionage stories and they could be as tense and as exciting, though not necessarily as horrifying.

The mini campaign opens in classic The Bourne Identity style in ‘Never Say Dead’. Leyla Khan is in hospital with no memory of how she got there and very quickly she receives a message that someone is coming for her. ‘Never Say Dead’ is about escape, discovering the first hints of the vampiric conspiracy that Leyla has been enthralled in for the past few years and a conspiracy within the vampiric conspiracy, and perhaps arm herself to take the conspiracies down. Having escaped Hungary in ‘Never Say Dead’, Leyla Khan begins to do what she is trained to do and that is follow the money. In ‘No Grave For Traitors’ this leads her to Spain where she gets caught up in a drug war and from there follows a courier to London and an auction for a number of odd antiquities, and ultimately to their strange origins in Transylvania. Although there is plenty of action, there is more of an emphasis on investigation in this second scenario. The third scenario, ‘The Deniable Woman’, Leyla is given a mission by her former employer, MI6, to look for a missing agent in Moscow who has his own preoccupations. The investigation leads in another direction away from the central conspiracy, though it is tangentially connected. All three scenarios are very good, being tense, fraught affairs with a mix of exciting action scenes and tight interactions. Some of the scenarios are truly memorable and consequently, definitely not worth spoiling. All three are part of the same conspiracy involving Leyla Khan, but together, they do not form a beginning, a middle, and an end. They are definitely a beginning, perhaps with a middle, but leaving the end for the Director to create.

All three scenarios in Night’s Black Agents: Solo Ops are well organised. They include a backstory and an overview of the objectives that Leyla will be aiming to attain—even though she may not be aware of them at the beginning of a scenario, entry vectors for Leyla, a flowchart of the scenes, its cast, and then the various scenes with their associated Challenges and Problems and Edges to be gained through play. Each scenario’s range of Problems and Edges is given after the end of the scenario. Each scenario ends with a discussion of its aftermath and possible Blowback scenes and consequences. ‘No Grave For Traitors’ and ‘The Deniable Woman’ also add starting problems which the player can choose from as a consequence of her ongoing story and confrontation with her past.

One aspect of Night’s Black Agents: Solo Ops—and also of Cthulhu Confidential—is that the GUMSHOE One-2-One System and having a single player and a single Game Master, is that it can be played online just as easily as it can face-to-face. Playing online means losing a certain degree of interaction between the players and the Game Master, both because of the technology and the loss of visual cues that act as a buffer, but Night’s Black Agents: Solo Ops and GUMSHOE One-2-One System ameliorates that because its focus is always on the one player and the one Game Master and their focus is on each other.

As good as it is very much all about Leyla Khan and it does leave her story hanging, unfinished. There are rules for a player to create his own Agent, but that really, is the focus of missions created by the Director rather than those in the book. It is possible for the three missions to be played using a player-created Agent, but this will require some adjustment upon the part of the Director. The three scenarios in Night’s Black Agents: Solo Ops are really the start of a campaign, rather than a complete one. Essentially, it is up to the Director to create the next parts of the campaign. She is given all of the tools and advice to do that, but at the same time, it is disappointing not to be able to pick up where ‘The Deniable Woman’ left off and quickly find out what happens next. There is another scenario for Leyla Khan, ‘The Best of Intentions’, but that is all so far. There can be no doubt that a sequel to Night’s Black Agents: Solo Ops, bringing her story to a close would be more than welcome.

Physically, Night’s Black Agents: Solo Ops is very well presented and written, and the artwork is decent. The book itself is a pleasure to read.

In comparison to the earlier Cthulhu Confidential, Night’s Black Agents: Solo Ops is a much tighter, more focused affair. This is due to it being focused on the one protagonist and the one antagonist, essentially, the single Agent and vampires. This also has the consequence of making Leyla Khan’s story more personal for the player and more involving. The result is that Night’s Black Agents: Solo Ops provides a great playing experience, tense and exciting, telling the player to, “Buckle up, you’re in the spotlight now and your fate truly is in your hands” all in readiness to make his Agent the star of their own action-horror film.

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